By Joseph Staszewski
The shock that marked the beginning of the season turned into a blessing by year’s end for the St. Francis Prep handball team.
The CHSAA changed from playing with a small ball to a large ball just three days before the season started. It led to some quick adjustments and a new team member replacing a key starter, but it didn’t keep the Terriers from winning its 10th-straight CHSAA city championship by defeating Bishop Loughlin 3-0 in a rain-shortened final at Orchard Beach June 7. Adding to the accomplishment, the junior varsity won its ninth consecutive crown and went unbeaten for the eighth time.
“We’ve gone a decade undefeated,” senior captain Joe Sirianni said. “It hasn’t been done in a long time.”
Coach Anthony Grimm said Sirianni and his teammates had a look of disbelief when he told them about the ball change. The frustration even had him contemplating stepping down as coach, since most of his knowledge is with a small ball. He was convinced to stay by the handball alumni and assistant Coach Billy O’Donnell, to whom he gives much of the credit for teaching the team proper technique.
“Big ball and small ball are two different sports,” said Grimm, who added that he suffered two herniated disks practicing with the big ball.
Sirianni had worked in the offseason to become a better small-ball player to possibly replace Roham Amladi, who transferred to Thomas Edison (N.J.), at first singles. Now the speed of the game was going to slow down and his style of swing needed to change. Players, Grimm said, use the big ball predominantly during recreational play.
The ball change allowed Grimm to easily convince senior Nick Veljacich, a big-ball player who disliked playing small ball, to finally come out for the team. Grimm learned of his talent while watching him play at the program’s bi-annual big ball tournament where he shined, winning singles as a sophomore.
“He tried to get me to play pretty consistently,” Veljacich said.
The coach told him to come see him after the forward’s hockey season ended this winter. When Veljacich heard of the change, he immediately jumped in the first singles spot. He went 8-3 and finished strong after getting over some early jitters.
“My first two games I was nervous as [heck],” said Veljacich, who will play hockey at Siena.
Siranni went on to dominate with classmate Tim Chen in doubles, not losing a match all season. No duo scored more than six points against them all year. They led a much younger group that saw sophomore Danny Lin start at second singles, freshman Ryan Delevan at third singles and sophomore Danny Villacis and David Rodriguez teaming up at second doubles.
“We were a little bit worried [coming in],” Sirianni said. “But it turned out switching to big ball kind of helped us because a lot of the young players were better at big ball than they were small ball.”
Lin clinched the title just before a thunderstorm hit Orchard Beach as the final two matches were not completed. It completed another season where St. Francis Prep overcame the challenge — in the past weather or injuries — put in front of it to keep its remarkable streak alive.
“It’s humbling to see these young men answer the call and respond with such championship fiber,” Grimm said. “It’s so awesome.”